Giancola-Durkin, P.A.

Engaging with violent offenders to reduce mass incarceration

We live in a world where the criminal justice system has focused on putting away as many criminals as possible for as long as possible. While being "tough on crime" may be popular, it has resulted in real problems. For one, many people have been subjected to harsh, mandatory minimum sentences that are often far out of proportion with the underlying crime. And, long sentences have contributed to our current mass incarceration crisis.

The United States incarcerates more people by far than any other nation in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Approximately 2.2 million people are held in federal and state jails and prisons, which represents a 500-percent increase over the past 40 years, says the nonprofit Sentencing Project.

There are some signs of progress. The U.S. incarceration rate peaked in 2008 and has been dropping due to policy changes. Since then, the total incarceration rate has gone from 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults to only 830.

One way that states have reduced their incarceration rates is through diversion programs. These programs typically work by offering select offenders a chance to complete treatment programs while under court supervision. Successful completion results in the charges being dropped.

We have a number of such programs in Minnesota, and they do a good job of responding to crime while keeping struggling people out of jail. They are effective at reducing recidivism, as well. Many expose defendants to cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychological treatment that has been found to reduce recidivism by half.

There is one catch, though. To qualify for most diversion programs, you must be accused of a non-violent offense.

Should violent offenders be eligible for diversion programs?

A law professor and a criminal justice researcher recently released a book called Start Here: A Roadmap to Reducing Mass Incarceration. They recognize that some violent offenders may need to be locked up for public safety reasons, but argue that the diversion programs available to non-violent offenders should be available to those accused of violent crimes.

For one thing, the fact that a crime is labeled "violent" doesn't necessarily make it serious. For example, simple assault is considered violent even though it usually involves no physical harm.

For another, long prison sentences don't have a great track record of preventing recidivism. In fact, they can make it so much harder to reenter society that they actually encourage recidivism.

Done thoughtfully, opening these programs to people accused of violent crimes could divert many more people from jail while addressing the underlying problems that contributed to their offenses.

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